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Questions and answers about the House vote on civil rights

The U.S. House of Representatives is scheduled to vote today on four versions of a long-debated civil rights bill. Senate Democrats have held off on introducing such a bill until the House acts. President Bush has threatened to veto any Democratic-sponsored measure that passes Congress. Here is a look at the issue: Q. What is the purpose of the Democrats' first bill?

A. It would reverse a series of Supreme Court rulings that had the effect of increasing the burdens of proof on plaintiffs in job discrimination suits. The bill also would extend other rights of minorities and women in job bias cases.

Q. Is it a quota bill?

A. That is the heart of the political debate over the legislation.

Bush contends that it would make it easier for blacks, women and other minorities to sue in job discrimination cases, and that as a result employers would resort to hiring quotas to avoid lawsuits.

Democrats and other supporters say the bill would not encourage or even permit quotas. They say the quota issue is a phony issue raised to exacerbate racial tensions and the suspicions of some whites that minorities have been receiving favorable treatment at whites' expense.

To counter Bush's argument, Democrats have written a section into their bill that states explicitly that quotas would amount to unlawful hiring practices. The Republican bill supported by Bush makes no reference to quotas. Thus, Democrats contend their bill is more anti-quota than Bush's.

Q. What is a quota?

A. As defined by the Democrats' bill, a quota is a fixed number or percentage of people of a particular race, color, religion, sex or national origin that must be attained or cannot be exceeded in hiring, regardless of people's job qualifications.

Q. Does Bush support changing some of the Supreme Court rulings altered by the bill?

A. Yes. Bush's bill also would alter the effect of some of the court's rulings. But it would let some of the rulings stand.

Q. What are the bills' other elements?

A. The Democrats' bill would extend rights for some people bringing job discrimination cases under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. For the first time, women, religious minorities and the disabled would be eligible for punitive damages in serious discrimination cases. Victims of racial discrimination already are eligible for unlimited monetary damages by virtue of a separate Reconstruction-era law.

The version Bush supports would allow damages only in cases of on-the-job harassment.

Q. What about limits on damages?

A. In one version, Democrats agreed to include a limit on the amount of damages women, religious minorities and the disabled could receive. That limit would be $150,000 in punitive damages or the amount of compensatory damages, whichever is greater. Many supporters of the bill don't like the limits but say they accepted it as a way to draw support from lawmakers worried that big damages would hurt employers.

Q. What other versions will the House consider?

A. There are four bills. The first is the version passed by the House Judiciary Committee. It would be discarded in favor of one of several proposed substitute versions.

The first substitute is sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus, female Democratic lawmakers and some liberals. It is the most liberal version and would not place any limits on the size of damages.

The second is sponsored by Republican leaders and is supported by Bush. It would not go as far as the Democrats' bill.

The third is the version endorsed by House Democratic leaders and civil rights leaders.

Q. How will the vote be taken?

A: Under parliamentary procedures designed for consideration of this issue, the House will take up each version one at a time. Even if one or both of the first two versions were to pass, it probably would not prevail. Under the House's proposed rule for debate, the last bill to be passed will prevail and be sent to the Senate.